As bad as last weekend was for the Eastern Washington football team, it was worse for North Dakota.
Not only did UND lose by three scores last week at 2-7 Southern Utah, it also lost its quarterback for the rest of the season.
It was just the latest misfortune for a 3-5 team that’s taking one step forward and one step back, seemingly every week, during Bubba Schweigert’s first year in Grand Forks.
Next up: today’s homecoming game at sold-out Roos Field against an Eastern team that’s just been handed its first Big Sky Conference loss in more than two years.
“It’s the biggest challenge we’ve had this year,” said Schweigert, who got another one last weekend when starting quarterback Joe Mollberg was lost for the season to an Achilles tendon injury. The next man up is Ryan Bartels, a former starter who struggled in a 35-17 loss at Southern Utah, going 23 of 44 for 297 yards and two interceptions.
UND doesn’t expect any sympathy from an Eastern defense that needs to pick itself off the turf again after giving up 496 yards in a 28-27 loss at Northern Arizona. More important, the sixth-ranked Eagles need to re-establish some momentum heading into the last three games of the regular season and lock up a berth in the FCS playoffs.
“We need to grow as a team and get better regardless of what our record is,” said EWU coach Beau Baldwin, whose team is 7-2 overall and 4-1 in the Big Sky.
“Even if we were 9-0 right now, we would continue to work hard and improve fundamentally throughout the year,” Baldwin said.
The Eagles should be heavily favored in this game against an offense that ranks last in the conference in every major category: total yards (256.2 per game), rushing (83.9 ypg), scoring (14.1), yards per rush (2.5) and first downs (12.9 per game, four fewer than the next-worst team).
Leading rusher Kyle Norberg has just 255 yards on 87 carries; top receiver R.J. McGill has 23 catches for 255 yards and two TDs.
Facing that offense is an Eastern defense that is slowly crawling into the middle ranks of the conference; the Eagles are seventh in total defense (giving up 455.3 yards a game) and in opponents’ third-down conversions at 41.8 percent.
“They’re very skilled,” Schweigert said. “It’s very hard to get big plays on them because they recover so fast.”
Schweigert’s own defense has been stout all season: UND is tied for seventh in FCS with 71 tackles for loss and leads the conference in total defense (344.6 yards).
The most impressive stat? UND’s last five opponents have averaged only 2.1 yards a carry.
None of them has a back of the caliber of EWU’s Quincy Forte, who rushed for a career-high 219 yards at NAU in his first game back from a shoulder injury suffered on Sept. 20.
“Quincy played his tail off and did a great job,” Baldwin said.
For the fourth straight game, the Eagles figure to start redshirt sophomore Jordan West at quarterback, though All-American Vernon Adams has made significant progress from a foot injury on Oct. 4. … Today’s game will be the 200th in the history of the stadium. … The Eagles have won 14 straight regular-season home games, while UND is 0-4 on the road this year and has lost seven straight away from Grand Forks since last year. … UND has been outscored 39-6 in the first quarter.
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